Thursday, August 7, 2008

Coroner Creek and the Code of the West

I admire the Japanese – not everything about them, not what they did in their manic ruthlessness in China and the Philippines prior to and during World War II, but their Samurai tradition. This tradition, the Bushido code, still influences their thinking. One of the reasons we get along so well, now, is that we have a similar code, the Code of the West. The Japanese have many tales of Samurai, and we have similar tales of cowboys.

I thought of Sergio Leone. Did he get it right – capture the American spirit – in his Spaghetti Westerns? Not really. Joe, played by Clint Eastwood, was a money-grubbing opportunist in A Fistful of Dollars, for example. Leone’s movies are fun to watch, but Leone can’t tell it right. It takes a classic western writer to do that. An example is Coroner Creek by Luke Short.

The money-grubbing opportunist, Miles Younger, is rightly described (in terms of the “Code of the West”) as a thorough-going villain. He is no cynical Blondie shooting the rope away before Tuco is hanged. Younger isn’t considered “Good” by Luke Short, quite the contrary. In his quest to obtain an initial stake in his road to riches, he organizes an Apache Indian raid. Younger gets the strong box and the Indians get everything else. The key event in terms of the rest of the novel is that Bess was in the wagon train and killed by the Indians. Younger doesn’t care. He doesn’t even remember her name. He got what he wanted. But Bess’s fiancé, Chris Danning, cares. He vows not to rest until Bess’s murderer is killed.

So yes, this is a classic revenge tale – as old as Homer: Hector kills Achilles’ best friend, Patrocles; so Achilles gets his revenge and in the process destroys Troy’s will and ability to resist.

And in Coroner Creek, Danning is equally relentless – barely human as he sweeps away all opposition. Younger has a crew to oppose Danning, but they are terrified of him. Anyone who stands against him is wounded or killed.

But, and here the American tradition, insofar as it treats the revenge theme – at least in Classic Western fiction – differs from other traditions. Danning is saved from his own fury at the end. His enemy is destroyed, but not by him – he held back and as a result deserves . . . Kate. Yes, he sought to avenge his murdered fiancé, and that was good and noble. At least Kate could see that as she looked through his fury to the real Danning behind it:

“’I want to,” Chris said. ‘I want to tell you more, Kate. I want to - - ‘ Again he stopped, reaching for words, and she looked up at him, her face grave and waiting.

‘He touched her face gently with his hand and said, ‘Blessed Kate,’ knowing that she could wait for the other words.’”

And we don’t need other words. Danning heroically set out to accomplish a seemingly impossible task, and he succeeds. His enemy is vanquished, but he doesn’t die as is so often the case in the Japanese tale of the ronin, the leaderless Samurai who needs to die to regain his honor. Danning succeeds and doesn’t die. No spectacularly noble death for Danning. After his trials, he receives a different reward: Kate. It’s the Code of the West!

Lawrence Helm

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